A miniature chemistry lab is headed to Mars to search for signs of life

The ExoMars Rover, scheduled to land on the red planet in two years, will contain a miniaturized chemistry lab onboard that can be used to search for signs of life. Not much bigger than a shoebox, the sophisticated Mars Organic Molecule Analyzer (MOMA) will contain a mass spectrometer that can detect and analyze organic molecules, such as amino acids, that could be the first evidence that life has existed on another planet.

The ExoMars Rover is a joint venture between the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Russian space agency Roscomos. The first ExoMars mission ended in failure in 2016 when the Schiaparelli lander spiraled out of control and slammed into the surface.

The instruments on the new ExoMars Rover, such as the spectrometer, generally take up an entire bench in a typical chemistry lab here on Earth. Scientists had to shrink the components down for the mission.

Another issue the researchers had to grapple with was contamination. Organic molecules are abundant here on Earth, and the lab needed to be produced and constructed in a completely sterile environment to ensure that no terrestrial molecules make the journey and render the samples invalid.

Once on the surface, the rover has an autonomous system which allows it to navigate by itself rather than wait for instructions from Earth, which take 24 minutes to arrive. The rover will retrieve samples from beneath the surface of the planet, which will then be heated in a tiny oven or zapped with a laser before spectrograph analysis.

“That’s the most exciting thing that hasn’t been done before, we’ve got a huge two-meter drill so it can go into the crust which is where we think life would be if it was still surviving,” ExoMars Delivery Manager Abbie Hutty explained to Reuters. “At the surface the radiation is extreme and conditions too hostile. Down below different layers of rock, maybe in a fissure where there may be water deposits could be a nice place for life to still be surviving.”

The tiny lab just completed its pre-flight reviews and it’s on the way to Turin, Italy, where it will be integrated with the rest of the rover over the next two years. The new ExoMars lander mission is planned for launch in July 2020 from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.

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